Contrary to popular religious depictions of crucifixion, victims were never nailed to the cross through the palms of the hands but rather through the wrists, as the flesh of the hands cannot support the victim's entire body weight; the person would simply fall off.
There can be several contributing causes of death by crucifixion: physical shock, dehydration, exhaustion, asphyxiation due to collapse of chest muscles, and loss of blood. Death could come in hours or days, depending on exact methods, the prisoner's health and environmental circumstances.
Crucifixion probably originated with ancient Persians. There is evidence that captured pirates were crucified in the port of Athens in the 7th century BC. Alexander the Great introduced the practice throughout his empire. He crucified a general that disagreed with his campaign plans.
Romans adopted the custom from Carthage and used it for rebels, slaves and especially despised enemies or criminals. They used it during Spartacus rebellion, during the Roman Civil War and the destruction of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was believed to be a dishonourable way to die.
The prisoner usually had to carry the horizontal beam to the place of execution, not necessarily the whole cross. If the crucifixion happened in an established place of execution, the vertical beam was probably permanently embedded to the ground.
The Romans often broke the prisoner's legs to hasten death. Burial afterwards was not usually permitted. In some cases, the nails were gathered afterwards and used as healing amulets.
The Roman Empire abolished crucifixion when Christianity became the state religion. Some medieval Muslim rulers used it sporadically.
Japanese method of crucification, used before and during the Tokugawa Shogunate, was different. The victim — usually a sentenced criminal — was hoisted upon a T-shaped cross. Then, executioners killed him with spears. The body was left to hang for a time before burial.
World War I, there were persistent rumors that German soldiers had crucified an Allied soldier on a tree or barn door with bayonets or combat knives. This story was widely used in the black propaganda of the time, together with a similar rumor that Germans had bayoneted Belgian babies. Such rumours made for highly graphic and disturbing pictures and were ideal for helping to demonize the enemy. After the war, investigators tried to determine the veracity of the story of the crucified soldier, but it was inconclusive.
There are persistent stories that crucifixions continue to occur in certain parts of Africa.